UK, Vandy faceoff has rare meaning
By: By ANTONIO GONZALEZ, Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — For years, Kentucky and Vanderbilt have tried to climb out of the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division basement.
Stuck in a logjam of talented teams, the traditional bottom dwellers have struggled to compete against their division counterparts — Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina.
Wildcats vs. Commodores.
Not exactly an attention-getter, right?
But Saturday, Vanderbilt will be playing for bowl eligibility, while No. 24 Kentucky still has a chance at the Eastern Division title.
“They will definitely be fired up for us,” Kentucky receiver Keenan Burton said. “We will be fighting, too. Just because we have six wins does not guarantee us a bowl game. What they are going through trying to get to a bowl game is the same thing we are going through.”
Kentucky (6-3, 2-3 SEC) surged into the national spotlight this season, knocking off then-No. 1 Louisiana State on its way to being ranked in the Top 25. Vanderbilt (5-4, 2-4) is trying to duplicate the success.
The Wildcats’ surprising run — ranked as high as eighth this season — has proved a team can rise up from the bottom of the SEC East.
Vanderbilt has taken notice.
“We’d like to be able to do that,” Commodores coach Bobby Johnson said. “Kentucky’s a state school. They’ve got a lot of resources, and they’ve taken advantage of them. Mostly it’s hard work — get out and recruit, coach the heck out of them and try to convince them they can be a good team.
“They’ve done a good job of that. Their guys think they can play with anybody, and they have.”
Kentucky is already bowl-eligible for the second straight year — the first time the Wildcats have accomplished so since the 1998 and 1999 seasons.
Reaching a bowl would be a bigger feat for the Commodores, who haven’t been bowl eligible since 1982. One more win for Vanderbilt would clinch a non-losing season, but not necessarily a bowl berth.
The SEC could have as many as 11 bowl-eligible teams, making this game all the more important.
“We really have to come back out and prove that we are still one of the teams to beat in the SEC,” Wildcats linebacker Braxton Kelley said. “We aren’t the old Kentucky team who always had the ability to do something but never came out with victories.”
Kentucky running back Rafael Little will return Saturday after missing three games with a thigh injury. Burton also returns after missing the Wildcats’ loss to Mississippi State on Oct. 27 with a sprained ankle.
The duo should give the Wildcats a big lift after consecutive losses.
“It’s always nice to get playmakers back,” Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. “Everybody knows how many plays Keenan Burton and Rafael have made on our offense. Having those two guys back in the lineup will be a big boost for us.”
Kentucky’s high-powered offense will present all kinds of challenges for Vanderbilt, which gave up 49 points last week to Florida. Except for SEC career reception leader Earl Bennett, the Commodores don’t have the offensive talent like the Wildcats.
Vanderbilt hopes for a low-scoring game, similar to that of their 17-6 win over then-No. 6 South Carolina last month.
That won’t be easy.
Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson, who is averaging a league-best 270 yards passing per game, leads a Wildcats team scoring more than 38 points each game.
“We haven’t lost our confidence,” Vanderbilt linebacker Jonathan Goff said. “This team is a mature team with a lot of great character.”